Building Brown with Wellness & Innovation
Published On: Jan 1st 2023
Home in Louisville, Kentucky, for a visit with her parents, Shoshanna Engel decided it was time to tell them about her new relationship. She didn’t worry that her folks would like her boyfriend. They’d already met him, albeit in a completely different context. Shoshanna and Marvin Lewis had been working together in 2014 - Shoshanna, in fact, sat in on Marvin’s interview at Georgia Tech - and the former basketball player left a sizable impression on the Engel family. And not just because he towers over Shoshanna. Marvin has a big and memorable personality.
But Shoshanna also knew her parents might have questions about how the couple would navigate a personal relationship in the professional confines of a college athletic department. So when her dad asked what it was that tipped the scales from friendship to romance, Shoshanna didn’t miss a beat with her answer. “We share core values,” she said. To which her father responded by bursting out in laughter. “Are you dating or running an org chart?” he asked, expecting her to say something more typical - that Marvin was handsome, charming, or funny. Shoshanna chuckles as she retells the story, as her now husband smiles. “Who says that about someone they’re dating, right?” she laughs. “But those underlying values, that was the foundation for us, and it still is. Marvin often talks about how we come to the same destination from different starting points.”
Now married, the couple has discovered the same holds true within a college athletic department. The two rank among the most unique duos in college sports, a husband-and-wife tandem working together to bring an innovative approach to the otherwise very traditional and staid Brown University. Guided by Vice President for Athletics and Recreation, Dr. M. Grace Calhoun, Brown is trying to reinvent the college athletic department approach, viewing it as a start-up operation and challenging its staff to toss out the notion of “this is how we’ve always done it” and be unafraid to fail. It would be upending anywhere.
That this is happening at Brown, a member of the Ivy League, which proudly dubs itself the Ancient Eight, underscores the daring. “Let’s give it a shot. That’s the mentality,” Shoshanna says. “If you fall on your face, get back up.” But in order to take big risks, you have to identify people who are willing to be risk takers and devise a staff that can play off each other’s strengths and counterbalance their weaknesses. That’s why Brown has found Profile “Invaluable,” as both Shoshanna and Marvin call the assessment tool. “Taking the assessments and going through the workshops not only helps us to be selfaware but also as a team, we are more aware of who’s on our team,” Marvin says. “What are their motivators? Their core values? How can we work together? Those questions are usually answered through trial and error and takes a while to figure out. Profile has helped expedite that learning process.”
Their own learning process was more traditional. Both former student-athletes - she an academic All-American gymnast at Yale, he a Final Four hoops player at Georgia Tech - Shoshanna and Marvin took unique paths to their careers in athletics. Shoshanna moved directly, eyeing a way to help students after her own athletic career ended. She earned a master’s degree at the University of North Carolina and purposefully opted for an internship in compliance, figuring it would be a way to intersect with every sport and person in the department. She spent time at N.C. State, Yale, and Tulane before heading to Georgia Tech, where she expanded her governance role to inclusion and diversity.
After competing for a national title with the Yellow Jackets, Marvin purposefully pivoted away from a professional basketball career, opting instead to pursue a path as a financial advisor. He worked at an accounting firm, got his CPA, landed some clients … and realized corporate life wasn’t for him. He missed the energy of college athletics. His practical experience, though, allowed him “to skip a few steps,” and Georgia State hired him as CFO of the athletic department, where he helped the school add football to its slate of sports. He moved from there to the University of Maryland, where he worked through yet another transitional period as the Terrapins moved from the ACC to the Big Ten. Finally, he landed at Georgia Tech, where he met his future wife.
Like Shoshanna’s father, the couple knew that working together would present its challenges. The good news - there’s always someone at home to talk to about your job who understands the challenges, the demands, and the conflicts. The bad news - there’s no way to not bring work home with you. “It’s a gift and a curse,” Marvin says. “The gift is someone is there with you in the trenches. The curse is you can never disconnect.” But the couple balances each other out well, with him as more analytical and she more emotional - “I feel out loud in bright colors,” Shoshanna says. That Brown offered a chance for both to continue to work together drew them to the job, but Calhoun’s broad vision for the program really intrigued them.
Her staff whittled by the pandemic - the Ivy League did not compete for an entire year, and many young staffers left for new opportunities while older ones retired - Calhoun, hired in April 2021, saw in the gap a chance to reinvent Brown. She hired Marvin and Shoshanna in July 2021 as her deputy athletic directors (he’s in finance and external relations, and she is in governance and student services) to help guide the new strategy. They’ve helped hire new staff and will lead a fall leadership academy, which Brown hopes will attract new staff and educate those already onboard.
But change is tricky, and finding ways to avoid the pitfalls and mistakes is tantamount. There remain some non-negotiables - student-athlete welfare and safety - but otherwise, Brown, as a staff, isn’t afraid to fail. Not everyone is comfortable with that, though.
That’s where Profile has helped tremendously. Brown has used the assessments to identify the candidates best suited for their innovation and the right people to lead various initiatives.
Shoshanna and Marvin took the assessments as well. The results affirmed what they already believed about themselves, but where they see the difference between Profile and other behavioral assessments is that it offers solutions. “Having a tool is always helpful, but the question very often is what do you do with the information,” Marvin says.
“After you receive an assessment for yourself or your team, what’s next? That’s the piece with Profile. It’s not just a DISC assessment. It includes your core values, motivations, and recommendations on how to interact with your team, but also blind spots to be mindful of. It helps you take that next step.”
For Marvin, for example, the assessment affirmed that one of his core values is involvement. That didn’t surprise him at all. But not everyone welcomes his involvement. Profile gave him some navigational tips, showing him how to offer assistance without stepping over the line. “Let me check myself at the door before I interact with a coach for the first time,” he says. “How do they need me to help? I have to ask myself those sorts of questions first. I understood that if a coach doesn’t want my involvement, it doesn’t mean they don’t need my support.” He also saw how he needed to be more open with his analytical mind to work effectively in the new Brown culture. “Sometimes done is better than perfect,” he says. “Progress over perfection, that’s been really helpful for me to understand the analyzer in me has to behave differently in this start-up culture.”
Similarly, Shoshanna’s assessment doubled down on what she already knew about herself. She gets invested, and those feelings often lead her to carry the responsibility, even for someone else’s problems or issues. But it also showed her how to find space between feeling the responsibility and constantly acting on it. “It’s been good to remind myself how I can divorce myself from being so close by using other tools I have.”
As this married couple - or any for that matter - will attest, “there is no magic elixir,” as Shoshanna says, no one tool will solve every problem or answer every question. Not in a marriage. Not in a corporation. And not in a college athletic department.
The reality is, however, that while Brown might be on the cutting edge of its approach to college athletics, the entire industry is changing and changing rapidly. Programs that are willing to think outside the box, and appreciate the need for a toolbox stuffed with all sorts of tools, will be rewarded for their forward thinking. “This is one tool that can really move the needle,” Shoshanna says. “If you’re strategic with how you use it, it can really have a substantial impact on your relationship within your organization and with productivity.”